PR Insight

What is the role of storytelling in PR?

Date: 22 November 2012 11:55

Facts on their own can be dull, but stories can make you laugh, cry and buy. Francis Ingham, PRCA director general, says there are just two words to explain how stories engage customers and shape brands, and those are “John Lewis”. Ingham says: “Its marketing work last Christmas wasn’t just original, It was also reputation-enhancing and defining. It reflected and built on its brand, which is absolutely the point of how a good story – fictional, corporate or otherwise – is vital to building a reputation. Because ultimately consumers don’t buy CEOs, or logos, or even products to some extent. They buy reputation.”

The art of brand storytelling, says Luke Mackay, associate director at PR firm Edelman, involves using messages that inspire conversation and sharing among target audiences: “PR is all about looking for the story that will bring a brand’s messages to life. Journalists are busy professionals, giving them a half-baked story isn’t an option. Similarly, if the story is playing out on social media, then audience attention is finite. Only quality, well thought-out stories will gain traction.”

However, Mackay says there is one danger with stories, and that is they can become bigger than the message. He offers this advice: “In many ways the stories created by communication professionals should be thought of as parables – vehicles to convey information. As with all parables, the stories only work if they are delivering a succinct and clear message that can be understood by the target audience.“

PRCA’s Ingham believes that story telling is also key for leaders: “In my view, far too much emphasis is placed on business plans delivered via Powerpoint. They might reinforce confidence, but they rarely create it. They are part of the process, not part of the inspiration.”

Ingham cites Richard Branson as an example of a leader whose personal story is very much part of his success: “Leadership is intrinsically linked to personal stories, because they in turn are linked to personal character. And personal character delivers loyalty. One caveat though – stories have to be authentic in order to deliver sustained value and loyalty. Two words serve to prove that: Jeffrey Archer.”

Kevin Murray, chairman of PR agency the Good Relations Group, is a strong believer in the power of stories, and says that “stories have always been at the centre of my thinking.“ From carrying out research for his book The Language of Leaders, Murray discovered how important storytelling is to those in power, and how one story can change a whole organisation and the way people think. Murray says: “Stories are like stealth fighters, they get messages straight to your heart.”

Like Ingham, Murray emphasises that stories are only effective if they are authentic, and he identifies other key elements of good storytelling: “They are more powerful when they are backed up with facts. They must have characters, conflict, tension and resolution. They must also appeal to all our senses by drawing on sights, colours, sounds and scents.” But storytelling always needs to have a clear purpose, concludes Murray: “I use stories to entertain people at dinner parties to amuse. But in business you need to tell stories that make a difference.”

The value of storytelling

Francesca Bennett, associate director at PR firm Fishburn Hedges:

“Crucially, storytelling is useful not just when presenting to clients or new business prospects. It can be used to define and inspire an organisation and help set its direction for the future. It can also be used to coach employees, galvanise them for a specific project or to help draw out their creative thinking. Storytelling is an exceptional tool to lead people and take them on a journey.”

Bryce Keane, founder and director of PR agency Albion Drive:

“Hero brands like Apple reinvent the concept of a brand narrative over any individual product. Although it wasn’t the first to take this approach, Apple has long since dominated the customer-centric narrative that revolves around ‘beautiful solutions’ to day-to-day problems, cleverly packaged up in a ‘unique identity’ approach for consumers who become fans.“

Tom Watson, professor of public relations at Bournemouth University:

“For brand communicators, the challenge is to create narratives that are deserving of trust by their target markets and sustainable over time. Already we have seen CSR abused as a marketing tool, which it isn’t, and PROs should avoid ‘brand narratives’ becoming another term for spin and hyperbole.”

Written by Daney Parker

Share this article

    Not sure what there is to debate. Stories are the alpha and the omega of PR. You can have a clear narrative that you're trying to communicate and that reflects your brand and its journey, or you can allow others to define the story that you then respond to. The choice is binary.

    Name: Bankflak

    Date: 23 Nov 2012 08:55 AM

    John Lewis Christmas campaign a great example of storytelling? Well, it was an ad that told a story. An expensive £1m+ ad with a less-than-original storyline. What it has to do with PR storytelling, however, is less clear.

    Name: Phil Reed
    Date: 26 Nov 2012 09:33 AM

    Dear all, stories are everything in good PR, not the zillion channels of delivering the right or often the wrong or the really dull message, as each one is unique, following its own logic, arguments and emotional impact. I have written may be hundreds of stories to create the image of UK for a great UK news agency to draw investment into the UK, reaching global media and investors and could not have enjoyed it more. But it also worked! The testimony were the number of hits, but most of all the feedback and the questions asked back. Please, use and employ independent writers, who could originate the story flow that will make your brand, organisation or client's image visible and familiar without seeing the marks of the marketing draft board. If interested to learn more, please contact me on, as we write exclusive content for the mass media and clients, who want to be easily recognised in the business, investment and the wider community. Yours, Rumy Vakarelska, MA, BA, MPhil

    Name: Rumyana Vakarelska

    Date: 28 Nov 2012 12:06 PM

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